By the Reverend Dr. Warren Crews
Editor's note: Father Warren gave this sermon on September 20; we're just now getting it published. We're grateful for your patience!
They say that half of life is showing up in the right place and the right time. I feel like that right now, because here we are on a Sunday when the gospel lesson is a parable that Jesus told that is placed in vineyard country in late September when the grape harvest has ripened. In rural Palestine, there was a short period of time to get the harvest in before the rains came and ruined the grapes. So, it was a frantic time. As was always the case, day laborers would gather in the village square waiting to be hired for the day. These workers were at the bottom of the social and economic ladder. They and their families lived from day to day. No work that day meant no food on the table.
The parable begins realistically at 6 a.m. when the owners of the vineyards would come to the village square and hire workers for the agreed upon daily wage. The standard wage was one Roman denarius, which was the minimum amount needed to feed, clothe and house one’s family for one day. Since this was crunch time in the vineyards, this owner returned at 9 a.m. to hire yet more workers. This time all he promised was that he would pay them what is right. This scene was repeated at noon, at 3 p.m. and finally at 5 p.m., just one hour before the work day was over. At six o’clock the owner instructed the foreman to pay each worker a denarius regardless of when he began working. Furthermore, they were to be paid in reverse order with the 5 p.m., one-hour workers paid first and the 6 a.m., twelve-hour, workers paid last.
As you might imagine, as the amazed part-time workers walked back holding their denarius, the grumbling sound got louder and louder. When it was all over the twelve-hour workers complained to the owner that this was unfair, unjust. They had worked longer and harder, yet were paid the same as the latecomers. The owner replied that he paid them what they had agreed upon: one denarius for a whole day’s work. What he did beyond that was his own business. Were they casting an evil eye on him, because of his generous provision of a living wage to the other men, who had no one to hire them later in the day? Jesus finished by saying that in God’s kingdom, the last shall be first and the first shall be last; he could have added: so that all may receive what they need.
One of the most primordial emotions in human beings is that of anger over feeling that they have been treated unfairly. One of the loudest screams on the playground is “that’s not fair!” Yet, from the owner’s perspective, he had been fair: he had fulfilled the agreement of a denarius for a full day’s work to those who had been hired at 6 a.m. The rest of them had only been promised pay that would be fair and just. The first group had been paid what they deserved. Everyone else had not been paid what they deserved, according to the usual pay scale, but rather what they needed for their families to eat that night. The owner was bucking the economic system of his time in order to be generous and merciful. Alas, his reward was grumbling from the early workers and, my guess is, from fellow vineyard owners who would eventually hear about his bucking their agreed-upon wage scale and complain about his bad example!
Not only is the arrival of this gospel lesson timely for agricultural reasons, but it is also for our consideration of its wider implications. If the landowner is a stand-in for God—remember this is a parable of the kingdom of heaven—then Jesus is making a statement about life in God’s kingdom here and now, since Jesus was proclaiming that the kingdom of heaven was even now at hand. Presumably, it still is for us. Our task is to wrestle with how to apply the message of the parable to our own economic situation, which is obviously very different. There is a great deal of talk nowadays about the need for more, better-paying jobs that can provide at least a living wage where the workers can meet their family’s needs. The arguments continue flying around us about what is a just minimum wage. As always, the devil is in the details.
There is another significant implication of the gospel lesson, one for most of us who are neither rich nor poor. The saddest people in this parable are those who get angry over God’s generosity for those who have not worked as hard or been as responsible as they have. God’s mercy goes way beyond our minimal concepts of justice.
None of this means that in God’s kingdom the slackers get a free ride. Meaningful work is built into our DNA. God made us that way. Would that all of those workers had been able to be hired at 6 a.m. to receive their well-earned denarius. But, for whatever reasons, they were not. They did not deserve the owner’s generosity, but they needed it, and they got it anyway, because Jesus in all his parables is showing us the face of a God of grace, a God of mercy, a God of amazing generosity. Jesus is modeling for us what God is like. What Jesus expects of us is to be aware of that, to see how we are the recipients of that generosity, and how with grateful hearts we are to be instruments of God’s grace to those less fortunate. Jesus is calling on us to leave grumbling behind, to move on to rejoicing over God’s amazing goodness, and, finally, to practice generosity. For such is life in the kingdom of God. AMEN.
The Reverend Dr. Warren Crews is co-priest in charge at St. John's.
Various members of the St. John's congregation contribute to this blog. For editorial suggestions, contact Jeff McIntire-Strasburg at email@example.com